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THE HOT CORNER: Give Kato credit for small moves

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THE HOT CORNER: Give Kato credit for small moves

by Jim Allen (Jul 15, 2010)

Last week the owners met and agreed to give commissioner Ryozo Kato another two-year term. When Kato came in like a ball-of-fire in 2009, he spoke of being a leader instead of a follower -- not an easy task for a commissioner here.

With Nippon Professional Baseball's 12 owners needing to sign off on all but the most mundane decisions, the commissioners have been advisors and mediators rather than leaders.

Commissioners have tended to be former bureaucrats with the demeanor of those accustomed to doing the talking. Despite their polish and nice suits, commissioners rarely stand out as the man in charge, because they aren't.

Kato, Japan's longest-serving postwar ambassador to the United States, is well versed in the game on both sides of the Pacific. He promised to make a difference, and to his credit, has done more than most of his predecessors.

One item on his agenda is to push toward a Japan-Major League Baseball club championship. On Monday, Kato and MLB counterpart Bud Selig decided to form a working group to figure out how it could be realized.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls, but those can be dealt with once both sides commit to having a championship.

The best plan aired so far is Bobby Valentine's: Play it as a charity event in Hawaii soon after MLB and NPB decide their champions. What would start as small potatoes could quickly become a feast if MLB sinks its sharp marketing teeth into the effort.

No matter how it starts, or how lightly MLB's champs might take the event at first, it's the kind of competition NPB needs to raise its standards.

High aspirations are the key if baseball is to realize its potential here and rival the majors' game in quality. Japan has won two World Baseball Classics and its owners sometimes speak of equaling the majors, yet for all the talk, many remain content to leave things as they are.

Japan's system is founded on each team owning the rights to 100 percent of its home game and licensing revenues. That system worked in the past, and it works now, provided your competition doesn't have a better system.

Unfortunately, many top players here flee to the majors, where the level of competition is higher. The best MLB teams have vastly more resources and have the well-oiled MLB advanced media sales machine backing them up.

Joint marketing efforts give the major leagues vastly more economic firepower to grow and expand their business in North America and beyond. It's firepower NPB clubs cannot hope to match without more joint action.

Japan's divided regime leaves its awkward imprint everywhere, from the badgering of umpires to slow games to the lame on-line shop on NPB's Web site, where one finds no team goods or even links to team shops.

Want to buy a Giants cap? You have to find Yomiuri's Web site on your own. A Carp shirt? Locate Hiroshima's site, which sells extremely cool shirts inspired by soccer's World Cup with the "Carp" script done in the colors of different nations.

Could teams create a larger market and produce better goods by working together? They could, but as long as they strive to preserve team rights above all else, they won't. This is business as usual in NPB.

Although Pacific League teams have begun working together, such cooperation is often anathema among the most powerful Central League teams.

The business side remains a sticking point to progress, but the commissioner is still having an impact. Next year, he'll bring an end to NPB's cacophony of the spheres.

For decades, teams have switched from one maker's balls to another's with annoying frequency. This makes offensive and defensive stats hard to evaluate at a glance, because simply switching balls can cause home run totals and ERAs to either sink or soar.

When the Carp moved to spacious Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium in 2009, home runs in Hiroshima dropped by 29 percent. This year, having switched to Mizuno's missiles, the jacks are back in the City of Peace.

Next year, however, every NPB team will be using the same ball. It's a small improvement. Let's just hope it's only the start.

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